How is Richmond’s restaurant industry adapting to the longterm ramifications of the pandemic? It really depends on who you ask.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the same, quite frankly.”
Micheal Sparks answered my call en route to his beach house. A culinary giant, Sparks is the CEO of the Underground Kitchen, a Richmond-based organization dedicated to allowing minority chefs to showcase their talents in a national setting. The Underground Kitchen, or UGK, is renowned for their themed experiential dinners, earning the “underground” portion of its name from the secrecy that surrounds the locations of their events until just before they occur.
On February 26, 2020, UGK held one of those dinners in Boston, MA. Unfortunately, around the same time, what would grow into a three-year pandemic was gaining momentum. After eight years of building, UGK was one of many event-based businesses that now faced a sea of cancellations.
The COVID-19 pandemic uprooted everyone’s life when it built up to full force in early 2020. One of the industries hardest hit by the need for lockdowns and social distancing has been the culinary industry. Businesses reliant on in-person patrons were suddenly faced with a significantly reduced customer base. From small businesses to nationally recognized organizations like UGK, they all felt the effects.
It wasn’t just businesses that were affected by the lack of consumers; chefs and other workers in the culinary industry were facing layoffs and extended bouts of unemployment as those seeking work quickly outnumbered the positions available.
While the Underground Kitchen was forced to stop booking events, they did not stop preparing meals. Sparks used his decade of culinary experience, wealth of contacts in an industry hurting for work, and easy access to supplies to pull off an extraordinary pivot in a short amount of time. In March of 2020, UGK Community First was born.
UGK Community First is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides quality meals to families in their community facing difficulty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sparks’s words, they made food for “anybody and everybody in the Richmond and surrounding areas.” In their first year of operation, UGK Community First delivered 130,000 meals to Virginia families. Sparks and his team have no plans to slow the project down anytime soon.
In addition to their meals program, UGK Community First has two gardens explicitly designated for providing fresh produce to their kitchen. They are currently attempting to create a partnership with Richmond City Public Schools in order to provide both weekend meal distribution and an educational campaign to improve the nutritional knowledge of the city’s students and their families.
The Underground Kitchen has also returned to booking its famous experiential dinners, revising their procedures in order to adhere to CDC recommendations. Overall, UGK’s experience with the pandemic is a success story. Not only did they survive, they used their vast web of connections and made innovative choices in order to help take care of the community they arose from.
Will Leung-Richardson and his food truck, Kudzu RVA, are on the other end of the spectrum. Leung-Richardson grew up in the culinary industry; his parents owned a restaurant. Years before the pandemic, he decided to honor his heritage by creating a food truck that blended Pan-Asian and Southern American flavors.
Kudzu RVA started 2020 off normally. They had plans to travel along the East Coast as part of a collaboration with the Underground Kitchen, and Leung-Richardson was excited about the opportunity. But when things began to shut down, Kudzu RVA was one of many who had to close their doors for the foreseeable future.
Leung-Richardson couldn’t help but worry that, without fast action, the temporary closure would become permanent. “I’ve seen so many things just end forever,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking, because a lot of them do have the same story as us. A lot of them had to claw to get to where they were, and it just came out from under a lot of people.”
Leung-Richardson’s genuine empathy for other small business owners was palpable throughout our conversation. One good thing he saw arise from the struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic was an increased sense of camaraderie, as many businesses banded together to help each other survive.
Leung-Richardson’s lifetime in the culinary industry enabled him to try new things in order to get ahead of the coming damage. Like many other restaurants, Kudzu RVA quickly converted their formerly in-person service to a delivery-based operation. This in turn presented a new challenge, since their menu is mostly based around ramen. As Leung-Richardson put it, “If you cook a bowl of noodles and bring it to someone, it travels terribly.”
Kudzu RVA got around this problem by creating an order-ahead system. They collected orders during the week and delivered them over the weekend. All of the food was prepared ahead of time and packaged in such a way that, upon receiving the food, the customer only needed to heat and combine the ingredients.
Adopting this method allowed Kudzu RVA to thrive in the new culinary landscape. Instead of having a localized, event-focused customer base, they were able to increase their reach outside the city, taking their menu into far-flung suburbs like Wyndham and Highland Springs. Today, Kudzu RVA is back to operating as a food truck, while still providing delivery options.
Sparks and Leung-Richardson both agree that the way the culinary industry operated in the “before times” is not exactly the way things will continue. One piece of evidence favoring their perspective is the introduction of ghost kitchens to the city’s food landscape.
The meaning of the term “ghost kitchen” varies, but the main unifying factor is that these establishments function anonymously to provide food sold under a variety of brand names out of the same kitchen. I was fortunate enough to speak to an executive chef currently in training while their establishment is transformed into a ghost kitchen. Due to the nature of these kitchens, both chef and establishment have requested to remain anonymous.
Once it becomes a ghost kitchen, this establishment will offer nine different concepts, all of which will come from their kitchen. As the chef explained, “Suppose a family wanted to eat out. Little Johnny wants sushi and Dad wants burgers, but Mom wants a chicken sandwich and Susan wants a salad. They can all order it from this one kitchen.”
After talking to multiple chefs in the industry, I learned that this method of organization does not always apply. The term “ghost kitchen” doesn’t seem to have gathered a great deal of stability yet. In addition to the situation described above, it has also been described to me as a kitchen running multiple branded concepts under various names through delivery apps. Another description is a communal kitchen that multiple chefs use for popups.
The chef that I spoke to cited availability as one of the many points in favor of establishing a ghost kitchen. The appeal of delivery apps is that people can order the different types of food listed above from multiple restaurants and have it delivered. For the anonymous restaurant, organizing a kitchen this way and offering all of those concepts under one roof is a method single restaurants can use to entice families to return to in-person dining.
“It’s very exciting,” the chef said. “But just like everyone else, our biggest issue is staffing.” Many in the restaurant industry are familiar with this concern. A younger chef, he has risen through the ranks over the past twelve years, continuing to work throughout the pandemic. This shortage of available workers is unlike anything he has seen during that time.
This problem highlights a difficulty that ghost kitchens face: “It really is like running seven kitchens at once.” Multiple concepts being fulfilled at the same time bring a lot more responsibility on both supervisors and chefs. Staffers need a wider variety of knowledge and the ability to multitask. However, the chef is optimistic about the new venture and their ability to navigate the unfamiliar terrain that comes with it.
Though the effects of the pandemic have been as widely varied as the people affected, there are some changes that have come to the entire restaurant industry. All three culinary professionals that we interviewed mentioned that things have changed since three years ago. From creating a nonprofit to embracing a new business model to establishing a ghost kitchen, each has transformed in unexpected ways. Overall, Richmond’s culinary industry has proven that it will continue to grow despite this period of difficulty.
Leung-Richardson summed up the situation for the entire industry. “We couldn’t let it end like this,” he said. “We figured we’d give it a really good go.”